Songwriting: Wisdom from Willie Nelson
And this past month, with the long drought here in southern Wisconsin farm country, punctuated by occasional torrential rains although we're still in a rain deficit, has been awful for anyone like me who's allergic to ragweed, hay, grass pollens, dust and molds. It's been a memorable allergy season for many here, along with the memorably dry and hot summer. Of course according to the political idiots who like to ignore scientific data when it doesn't serve their ideology, climate change isn't really happening. But I digress.
I'm writing in a conversational stream-of-consciousness mode because I've just been reading a book written that way.
I spent a couple of hours this morning reading Willie Nelson's 2002 book The Facts of Life, and Other Dirty Jokes. It's a breezy oral history, full of conversational asides, comments about touring on the road, growing up, and full of anecdotes about the music business, friends, and songwriting. It's much more than a book of collected lyrics, which are woven into the book in between rambles. I read the book in about two hours (I'm a very fast reader) in part because reading song lyrics on the page is faster than listening to the recorded songs.
The first album of Willie Nelson's that I can remember really getting into was Stardust, which is still a classic (and has been reissued as such on CD, in an expanded version). That was my discovery and entry point. I was still mostly listening to classical and jazz at that point in my life, but I was impressed by Willie's way of performing old standards and jazz songs. In fact, and I'm probably letting out a secret here, the way Willie sings is from jazz singing: always behind the beat, giving it that trademark laid-back feel, but arriving on time at the critical moments and the end of a phrase. That laid-back feel in the music is similar to way he writes this book, and lives his life. The important things in life are worth getting passionate about; almost everything else isn't. He does mention his Farm Aid activism in the book, quite passionately, and is passionate about the things and people he loves, and what has influenced him in life. And then there are all the dirty jokes laced throughout. A contradiction? Not really, just pieces of the whole cloth.
As many who know me know, I have strong opinions about lyrics printed on the page: they rarely stand up as purely poetry. Many poets, and fans of various songwriters, make the claim for their favorite songwriters as being pure poets, and often cite lyrics as poetry when discussing them. The problem is, if you really know the song, you're not really paying attention to just the words, as if you know the song the music will be playing in your head as you read. My point is that songwriting is words-and-music, not just words. Lots of poets, and fans, get hung up on the lyrics and forget that songwriting is synergy: words-and-music in perfect symbiosis, each synergizing the other to a higher level.
Several of Willie Nelson's song lyrics printed in this book are to songs that I didn't know (several early songs) or knew on;y slightly. So I was able to read several lyrics on the page as poems. I learned a little bit more about the craft of songwriting from this: both in terms of metric form and when you can really make a phrase stand out by not rhyming. Most songwriting uses older poetic forms, notably ballads and blues, most of which are metric forms with end-rhymes. These patterns are inherited and evolved from folk music—country is the descendent of old-timey mountain folk music, as is bluegrass, and is in turn descended from the music brought to the Appalachians by immigrants from the British Isles for the most part. (Blues and its many related and branched descendent forms were brought to Turtle Island by African-Americans.)
What Willie often does in these songs is stick to a simple rhymed metric form, then break it for effect. Outlaw that he is, he also invents forms, often in songs with very short and simple lines, using fewer words for song than many other songwriters. They're striking to read as lyrics on the page. You constantly trip over your own running feet. There's real gold in breaking away from couplets and quatrains, and other classic song-forms that on the page often look like rectangles of text; these songs rarely look like rectangles on the page.
What makes Willie a great songwriter shines out in this written ramble of a book of collected lyrics and anecdotes and memories: he's an excellent storyteller, period. Of course, I also love his attitude. Actually, I've always loved his attitude. He knows how to laugh at himself, and make you laugh along. There's also a very serious man under all this, and always has been: it's the serious artist, always observing, recording, and telling us stories. That's pretty much the old Viking definition of a skald, or bard. Willie is certainly one of our own bards. Plus the man can really sing.
What leads me to book reviewing The Facts of Life, and Other Dirty Jokes more formally is a long passage Willie writes about the power of song itself, for the writer and the performer as well as the audience. I found this passage very wise and telling. Willie includes the lyrics to two early songs that I didn't know about, "No Tomorrow in Sight" and "Sad Songs and Waltzes." He comments in an aside between giving the lyrics of these two songs: I wrote that way back in the early '60s. Very few people have even heard it because sad songs and waltzes weren't really selling that year.
Then Willie follows this up with a very telling commentary:
Both of these songs put together probably sold about four copies. That's not the important thing. To me, just getting the words out of my head and onto paper was an exercise worth performing. Those kinds of thoughts left bottled up inside can do more damage than good, and can probably cause everything from cancer to heart break. Sometimes just saying the words can cause some kind of healing to begin. But if you sing those songs every night year after year, I believe you can also prevent a total healing because you're always opening old wounds.
So what's the answer? Who knows. If you have a hit with a sad song, just remember when you wrote it, it was for you. When you sing it over and over, it's for the benefit of the listener. Don't let it spoil an otherwise good night. Attempt to sing the song for the audience, and try not to get involved in it yourself. It's a very thin line, and a lot easier said than done.
Sometimes I believe the reason a lot of country singers and writers have gone off the deep end was because they could not find that thin line, and could never fully recover from the evening that caused them to write the song in the beginning. Hank Williams, Floyd Tillman, George jones, Lefty Frizzell, and myself included, could in some ways be victims of our own words.
—The Facts of Life, and Other Dirty Jokes, p. 186
I find this to be incredibly timely and useful advice. Coming out of a post-concert/concert/roadtrip/concert depression, more aware than ever that you just have to keep going, even if you don't want to, this kicks me to keep on going.
Willie also gets at something that's perhaps at the heart of his endurance as an artist, and at why some artists crash and burn. This gets into the toxic myths and stereotypes (usually promoted by non-artists, although some artists buy into them as well) of the Starving Artist, the Drunken Writer, the Suffering Artist, the Lonely Poet, the Underapppreciated Songwriter.
That entire awful cluster of stereotypes that circle around the idea that "I'll be rich when I'm dead," plus the core devaluing of all the arts that goes on in our culture. People want to be able to download all the music they love for free, even though it means the singer they love goes broke. People will pay hundreds of dollars to go see their favorite athletes throw little balls around various kinds of grassy fields, but they balk at paying 99 cents to download a song? Get real. I lost all remaining shreds of sympathy for professional sports players the year the baseball players went on strike: essentially that was millionaires going on strike against not being able to be double-millionaires. Any one of those undereducated professional athletes could have taken their already-inflated salaries and funded the entire educations of ten artists or dancers, or more. (Although dancers are in fact better athletes overall than any sports stars. They have to be: it's a whole-body art.) But I digress.
The truth is, life is full of so much suffering as it is. You don't need to go looking for it.
What a lot of people who recycle those toxic stereotypes miss is that the art isn't the result of the suffering, isn't caused by the suffering, and you don't necessarily make better art because you have suffered. The artist's first response to all of life's experiences, both positive and negative, is to make art about it. That's what artists do. Just that. Full stop. An artist makes art. All of life is fuel for the artist, good and bad alike. In fact, making art is often the best way to cope with whatever life is throwing at you, good and bad. Artists do make art as a form of self-therapy: just getting the words out of your head and onto the paper is worth doing.
But it doesn't stop there. Afterwards, you go on with life. You're not supposed to dwell on it, you're supposed to let it go, and continue on. Don't stop, don't wallow, just get back on the road and keep moving on. One of the best quotes I ever heard coming from an artist was that the secret of life is to do the next thing.
"On the road again. . . ." I don't know where Willie Nelson learned his enlightened Zen detachment, but it's the real thing. And it's a good role model for all other bards to heed.
Here are some other brief quotes from the book that caught my eye as I was reading, and made me stop and think.
Success and failure—same number of letters.
Puts worry and despair in perspective.
I believe that you can't lose if you don't give up. Even if you die, you'll die fighting.
Another good reminder to never give up. I needed to hear that today.
Ninety-nine percent of the world's lovers are not with their first choice. That's what makes the jukebox play.
Which means you will never ever run out of material.
We authors deal in words. You can't tell a songwriter he ain't any good because he knows better.
A comment on artistic stubbornness that I can agree with. It's certainly true that almost every poet knows that he's right and you're wrong.
If you ain't crazy, there's something wrong with you.
Words to live by. If you're a sane person living in an insane world, others might judge you as insane, but really, you're not, they are.